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Abstract

Successful formation of long-term declarative memory is influenced, among other things, by attention, emotion, and deviation from expectations. A unique form of expectation can be elicited through musical tension, evoked by the prolongation of certain musical progressions. We examined the effect that musical tension exerts on the formation of declarative memory, by composing three original music pieces that contained tension segments, achieved by delays in release from dominant to tonic harmonies. Music-evoked tension was validated using music information retrieval (MIR) analysis, as well as skin conductance response (SCR) measures. Indeed, tension-evoking musical excerpts were associated with heightened SCR, corroborated by increased subjective ratings of tension, as compared to neutral excerpts. In the main experiment, 50 participants listened to the three musical pieces while they were presented with unique images that were randomly assigned to four conditions: tension, tension-release, neutral music, and silence. One day later, their memory for the images was examined using a recognition test. We found that memory performance was enhanced for images presented during both neutral and tense music compared to silence. Moreover, we observed a tradeoff effect between post-experiment tension perception and memory, such that individuals who perceived musical tension as such displayed reduced memory performance for images encoded during musical tension, whereas tense music benefited memory for those with lower musical tension perception. Understanding the interrelations between musical components, which exert powerful and fundamental responses in humans, and cognitive faculties, may provide insights as to the basic features of memory formation.
Vol.:(0123456789)
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Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-022-02095-z
BRIEF REPORT
A tradeoff betweenmusical tension perception anddeclarative
memory
NawrasKurzom1,2· AviMendelsohn1,2
Accepted: 24 March 2022
© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2022
Abstract
Successful formation of long-term declarative memory is influenced, among other things, by attention, emotion, and devia-
tion from expectations. A unique form of expectation can be elicited through musical tension, evoked by the prolongation
of certain musical progressions. We examined the effect that musical tension exerts on the formation of declarative memory,
by composing three original music pieces that contained tension segments, achieved by delays in release from dominant
to tonic harmonies. Music-evoked tension was validated using music information retrieval (MIR) analysis, as well as skin
conductance response (SCR) measures. Indeed, tension-evoking musical excerpts were associated with heightened SCR,
corroborated by increased subjective ratings of tension, as compared to neutral excerpts. In the main experiment, 50 partici-
pants listened to the three musical pieces while they were presented with unique images that were randomly assigned to four
conditions: tension, tension-release, neutral music, and silence. One day later, their memory for the images was examined
using a recognition test. We found that memory performance was enhanced for images presented during both neutral and
tense music compared to silence. Moreover, we observed a tradeoff effect between post-experiment tension perception and
memory, such that individuals who perceived musical tension as such displayed reduced memory performance for images
encoded during musical tension, whereas tense music benefited memory for those with lower musical tension perception.
Understanding the interrelations between musical components, which exert powerful and fundamental responses in humans,
and cognitive faculties, may provide insights as to the basic features of memory formation.
Keywords Memory· Musical tension· Recognition memory· Music
Introduction
The ability of musical stimuli to induce strong emotional
responses is well established (Judde & Rickard, 2010;
Krumhansl, 1997; Rickard, 2004). The effects of musical
stimuli on cognitive functions, however, are more complex
and controversial. Musical stimuli provide a unique
opportunity to study cognitive functions and their neuronal
underpinnings, by examining the effects that musical
properties exert on listeners while carrying out diverse
cognitive tasks (Echaide etal., 2019; Lehne etal., 2014).
Musical experiences are unique in that depending on
context, they may evoke a sense of abstract expectation,
which awaits to be resolved into a more stable state (Leonard
B. Meyer, 1961). In the current study, we set out to examine
how the perception of musically induced tension, which is
based on unresolved expectations, may affect the formation
of declarative memories of visual stimuli.
Previous findings on the effects of music on cognition
in general and specifically on memory are inconclusive (de
la Mora Velasco & Hirumi ,2020). Rauscher etal. (1993)
claimed that listening to Mozart's music is directly corre-
lated with the activation of neurons involved in spatial tasks,
thus leading to noticeable improvements in visuospatial
task performance. Conversely, other studies were not able
to establish significant influences of background music on
cognitive performance (Anderson & Fuller, 2010; Freeburne
& Fleischer, 1952; Thompson etal., 2011). While empiri-
cal evidence on the relationship between music and visual
* Avi Mendelsohn
amendels1@univ.haifa.ac.il
1 Sagol Department ofNeurobiology, University ofHaifa,
3498838Haifa, Israel
2 The Institute ofInformation Processing andDecision Making
(IIPDM), University ofHaifa, Haifa, Israel
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
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memory is scarce, several studies have been conducted on
the relationship between listening to music and memory with
regards to verbal items (i.e.Ferreri etal., 2015; Iwanaga &
Ito, 2002; Jäncke & Sandmann, 2010; Kang & Williamson,
2014; Woo & Kanachi, 2005). Findings from these studies
are indecisive as well; some results point to a positive effect
of listening to music on source memory (Ferreri etal., 2015;
Ludke etal., 2014; Simmons-stern etal., 2010), whereas
others (e.g., Jäncke & Sandmann, 2010) did not find such an
effect. Thus, the exact mechanisms underlying the relation-
ship between background music and learning, if any, are still
largely unknown.
Two plausible models regarding the effect that back-
ground music may have on learning were previously sug-
gested. The first, adopted from Kahneman’s “cognitive
capacity model” (Kahneman, 1975) maintains that incom-
ing cues compete for attention, such that the processing of
any part of the incoming stimuli will come at the expense of
performance relating to other stimuli. Thus, when multiple
stimuli are simultaneously present, individuals will automat-
ically divide their attentional resources, which may consume
more cognitive resources that could be otherwise allocated
to the main task. The usage of background music on top of
a learning task can thus grab the performer’s attention, and
consequently distract them from learning (Proverbio etal.,
2015). In this sense, background music can be described
as a “seductive detail” (Lehmann & Seufert, 2017; Rey,
2012). This suggestion was supported by studies showing
that background music impeded learning of a new motor
task (Miskovic etal., 2008) and driving performance (North
& Hargreaves, 1999). Although previous research on the
interaction between background music and memory in gen-
eral is limited (Lehmann & Seufert, 2017), according to this
view, background music is likely to interfere with the pri-
mary cognitive task, thereby diminishing overall behavioral/
cognitive performance.
The second model – the “arousal mood hypothesis” – per-
tains to the emotions that music induces and their effect on
concomitant cognitive performance (Husain etal., 2002). It
is well established that music is a powerful tool for induc-
ing emotions (Carr & Rickard, 2016; Gabrielsson, 2001),
affecting physiological responses, including skin conductiv-
ity, heart rate, and other autonomic signatures (Baumgartner
etal., 2006; Ellis & Simons, 2005; Grewe etal., 2009;
Salimpoor etal., 2009). Given that memory formation is dra-
matically affected by emotional states (Cahill & McGaugh,
1998; Labar, 2007), it can be hypothesized that music may
affect learning and memory via emotional responses. Indeed,
emotionally arousing background music has been shown to
enhance visual memory (Carr & Rickard, 2016; Proverbio
etal., 2015). The effects of music on memory are, how-
ever, highly influenced by the type of music employed. For
instance, music that is enjoyable for the listener is likely
to improve performance of cognitive tasks (Husain etal.,
2002; Thompson etal., 2011). This hypothesis has been sup-
ported by several studies showing that background music
can improve both verbal memory encoding (Ferreri etal.,
2013) and autobiographical memory in patients suffering
from Alzheimer’s disease (El Haj etal., 2015), and that ver-
bal and visual processing speed are improved when listen-
ing to background music (Angel etal., 2010). Nevertheless,
arousal is not always beneficial for learning, as excessive
arousal is associated with anxiety, which is harmful to learn-
ing (Lehmann & Seufert, 2017) and is likely to result in
memory impairment under certain circumstances (Kenya &
Vuyiya, 2020; Kizilbash etal., 2002).
A ubiquitous component in the experience of music is
that of tension, which is often evoked by chords that within a
particular context instill an unresolved sensation, which cre-
ates an expectation towards resolution to a more stable chord
(Bigand etal., 1996; Leonard B. Meyer, 1961; Portabella
& Toro, 2020). Since musical stimuli typically lack actual
negative real-life implications, these “tense” experiences,
which may otherwise be considered negative, can be expe-
rienced as positive and rewarding, as part of the aesthetic
experience (Lehne & Koelsch, 2015). Among the most com-
mon and strongest harmonic progressions is the movement
of the dominant chord (V) to its resolution in the tonic chord
(I). Within the paradigm of classical tonal music, this har-
monic progression (from V to I) is considered a stereotypical
component in many familiar musical passages (Bigand &
Parncutt, 1999). Upon delays in release, tension will likely
reach its peak, and the listener will wait for the outcome to
take place. Thus, prolonged delays create longer and more
intense periods of tension (Huron, 2006, p.314). Examples
of delayed tension release can be found in diverse musical
genres and eras, from classical musicians (e.g., Chopin’s
Nocturne in C sharp minor, first two bars) to popular com-
posers such as Freddie Mercury. In Bohemian Rhapsody
(Queen), for example (in secs 0:45 and 5:27), the composer
sustains the fifth dominant chord, which causes tension that
is released by resolving on the tonic chord. It is noteworthy
that the delay effect increases the more a specific outcome is
expected. Hence, any intentional prolonged delays in these
types of “predictable” musical passages are expected to be
correlated with increasing states of tension in comparison
to passages with minimal or no delays. The means by which
musical tension may affect declarative memory formation
are, however, not well established.
According to the “cognitive capacity model,” we would
expect that memory performance would be negatively
affected by perception of musical tension, due to the
simultaneous processing of competing stimuli. Alterna-
tively, the “arousal mood hypotheses” would predict that
arousing music, induced in this case by tension, would
increase memory performance (Proverbio etal., 2015).
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
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In order to test these competing hypotheses, three origi-
nal piano pieces were composed (by the author - N.K.),
containing both tense and neutral segments, as well as
events of release from tension and periods of silence. Ten-
sion was achieved by playing a musical phrase twice, first
devoid of delays in tension release, and once again with
delaying tension release. In this manner, when the delayed
resolution is played, the participants may compare the
novel stimulus with the previous presentation. We vali-
dated the musical tension manipulation by testing meas-
urements of skin conductance responses (SCR), subjec-
tive ratings of suspense, and applying music information
retrieval (MIR) analyses. During the experiment, partici-
pants were presented with unique images while listening
to the musical pieces. One day later, their memory was
examined using a memory recognition test. We found a
tradeoff between musical tension perception and memory
performance, such that the perception of tense versus neu-
tral music was associated with lower subsequent memory
for concurrently presented visual images.
Methods
Participants
The current study comprised 50 healthy participants aged
between 20 and 45 years (M = 26.30, SD = 4.81). Thirty-
eight females with a mean age of 26.39 years (SD = 5.42)
and 12 males with a mean age of 26 years (SD = 2.08)
participated in the memory experiment. An additional 22
healthy participants took part in a pilot study, designed
to validate the musical tension stimuli by measuring skin
conductance response (SCR). Three participants were
excluded from analysis due to undetectable changes in
SCR, leaving 19 participants (13 females and six males;
age range: 20–35 years, M = 25.08, SD = 4.03). All par-
ticipants were recruited through university posters and
using the University of Haifa SONA system. Participants
remained completely naïve about the aims and purposes
of the study. The experiment was approved by the ethics
committee of the Psychology Department of the Univer-
sity of Haifa, and participants were remunerated for their
participation. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 20 partici-
pants carried out the experiment in an online version, by
receiving a video link to the experiment, monitored by
the experimenter using the Zoom meeting software for
the learning session, and the Pavlovia platform (https://
pavlo via. org/) for the memory test session (the same
procedures were applied for both online and laboratory
versions).
Musical material
Three different piano pieces were composed specifically for
the purposes of this research. These pieces were recorded
using a digital piano in the Music Studio of the Department
of Music at the University of Haifa. Previous research has
shown that the effect of musical familiarity could interfere
with participants' performance (Büdenbender & Kreutz,
2016; Hilliard & Tolin, 1979). Therefore, all pieces were
novel compositions (and not adapted from already existing
musical works) to preclude familiarity with any of the musi-
cal stimuli (see Online Supplementary Material (OSM) for
links to the musical pieces).
The musical pieces (of lengths 2.37, 3.49, and 3.08 min)
were composed so as to contain a sufficient number of
distinct events of tension and tension releases, with inten-
tional delays of resolutions (see OSM for links to musical
pieces). The musical pieces contained both harmonic ten-
sion with immediate release (no delay, neutral condition)
and harmonic tension with delayed resolution (tension con-
dition). Harmonic tension was evoked by using dominant
seventh chords, which typically evoke a sense of prediction
by eliciting expectations regarding future (musical) events
(Bigand etal., 1996). The pieces were composed in such
a manner that non-experienced musicians were also likely
to experience this “anticipatory” sensation; this is achieved
by playing a musical phrase twice, first devoid of resolu-
tion delays, and once again with delaying the release from
tension (see Fig.S2, OSM). In the first presentation of the
musical phrase, a representation of the expected resolution
is acquired, such that when the delayed resolution is played,
the participants may compare the novel stimulus with the
previous presentation. The tension chords were followed by
a Root Chord, which served to resolve, or release, the previ-
ously elicited tension (Huron, 2006; Meyer, 1956). Impor-
tantly, the neutral and the suspenseful musical conditions
did not differ in terms of rhythm, tempo, or harmony. These
elements were kept similar, and the only substantial differ-
ence was in the temporal delays of the harmonic resolution
in each condition.
The music’s waveforms, spectrograms, and novelty infor-
mation were extracted using the Music Information Retrieval
(MIR) toolbox for Matlab (Lartillot etal., 2008). Using
the MIR toolbox, the musical waveforms were segmented
according to “attack” onsets, followed by the extraction of
the peaks and subsequent troughs of amplitudes. This ena-
bled us to quantify the decay time (in seconds), within which
each pre-defined event type was presented (“tension,” “neu-
tral,” and “tension release”). We also computed mean ampli-
tudes (the music’s volume) for each condition by creating
an envelope from the waveform and extracting the relevant
positive values. In addition, we used the mirnovelty function
to characterize the transitions between successive states in
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
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the music throughout. This feature is computed by using a
self-similarity analysis approach, comparing local configura-
tions along the diagonal of a cross-correlation matrix in an
unsupervised manner (Foote & Cooper, 2003). Applying a
kernel size of 400 frames, the algorithm created a novelty
curve, representing transitions between successive changes
in music properties. Following this, we averaged the novelty
values across events of each type, and plotted them.
Visual stimuli
The visual stimuli we used for examining incidental declara-
tive memory formation consisted of 160 images selected
from an open access database – the Bank of standardized
Stimuli (BOSS; Brodeur etal., 2014). These images were
all emotionally neutral, and previously validated for vari-
ous properties, including familiarity and visual complexity
(ibid).
Physiological validation ofmusical tension
In order to examine the physiological response to the musi-
cal tension manipulation, we carried out a pilot study on 22
participants using both subjective and objective measure-
ments. This experiment did not test memory, and included
only the musical stimuli. The experimental procedure con-
sisted of three stages: In Stage1, participants were instructed
to sit on a comfortable chair, while skin conductance was
recorded from electrodes attached to the distal phalanx of
the second and third fingers of their non-dominant hands.
They listened to the three abovementioned musical pieces
interleaved with short silent intervals. In Stage2, participants
were asked to rate the degree to which they felt musical ten-
sion for short musical excerpts that were selected from the
three musical pieces conveyed during Stage1, each either
containing musical tension or not. Participants were asked
to rate their felt-tension for each excerpt on a scale from
1 to 5. Following this, Stage3 included a questionnaire,
in which participants were asked to answer questions that
gauged their musical background. Indeed, musical excerpts
with tension, characterized by prolonged delays in melodic
resolution, were associated with increased subjective ratings
of suspense as compared to neutral excerpts. Three out of
the 22 participants were excluded from the analysis since
they did not show any significant SCR measurements.1 The
analysis of SCR data consisted of down-sampling the data
from 500 Hz to 10 Hz (in order to reduce computational
load). Statistical analysis was performed using Ledalab (a
Matlab-based toolbox; Benedek & Kaernbach, 2010).
Main experiment procedure
The main experiment consisted of two sessions (Fig.1),
conducted over two consecutive days. During the learning
session, participants sat comfortably in front of a computer
screen in an acoustically isolated room and under dimly-lit
conditions. Participants were presented with 80 neutral pic-
tures that were randomly selected from The Bank of Stand-
ardized Stimuli (BOSS; Brodeur etal., 2014). Each picture
was presented on a computer screen for 2 s, and were equally
divided (in a within-subject fashion) across four conditions
(20 pictures in each condition) related to the musical com-
ponents within the composed pieces. Specifically, 60 pic-
tures were presented within the musical timeline, equally
divided across musical tension, neutral, and tension release
periods. As a memory formation baseline, 20 pictures were
displayed in the absence of music (between musical pieces;
silence condition). In order to counterbalance the stimuli-
music associations across participants, four versions of the
encoding phase were designed, each consisting of a different
picture-musical condition assignment. Each participant was
randomly presented with one of the versions of musical con-
dition-visual stimuli combinations in the learning session.
In the memory test session, participants underwent a rec-
ognition memory test that included 160 pictures (80 that
were presented during the learning session and 80 new
pictures) devoid of auditory input. The participants were
instructed to determine whether or not each picture had
appeared in the previous stage, and to rate their confidence
concerning their answer on a scale from 1 (guess) to 9 (sure).
Subjective report offelt‑tension andmusical
background
Following the memory test, participants were instructed to
provide subjective ratings of six short excerpts taken from
the original musical pieces, which either contained or did
not contain musical tension (three of each kind). Partici-
pants were requested to rate their perceived tension for each
excerpt on a scale from 1 (no tension perceived at all) to 5
(high perceived tension). Importantly, the tension rating task
was performed only after the learning and test stages of the
experiment had ended, since we did not wish participants
to be explicitly aware of the research question regarding the
effects of tension on memory, which might lead to biases in
learning and memory performance. For each participant, we
calculated a subjective tension perception score, defined as
the difference between average perceived-tension for the ten-
sion excerpts minus average perceived tension for the neutral
excerpts. In a subsequent analysis, this score was correlated
1 The absence of significant SCR for the excluded subjects may have
been due to either a technical error, or to low electro-dermal activity
from the participants themselves.
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
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with memory performance indices, as described below. In
addition, a post-experiment questionnaire was administered
in order to assess participants’ musical background. This
questionnaire was adapted from the music background ques-
tionnaire (Zhao etal., 2012). Although none of the partici-
pants were professional musicians, this questionnaire pro-
vided information regarding the individuals’ experience with
music through factors such as engagement with music, hours
spent listening to music, etc.
Memory performance assessment
Memory performance was assessed using a Discriminabil-
ity index (d’), calculated for each participant and condition
as the difference between normalized hit rates and false
alarm rates. In addition, confidence data was accounted
for by performing a dual-process signal-detection (DPSD)
analysis (Yonelinas, 2002), using the ROC Toolbox for
MATLAB (Koen etal., 2017). Memory performance was
binned by confidence ratings to create an 18-point scale (9
for “old” responses and 9 for “new” responses). The cumu-
lative proportion of hits was plotted against the cumulative
proportion of false alarms starting from the most stringent
criterion (i.e., the proportion of hits and false alarms at the
highest level of confidence) to the most liberal criterion. A
receiver operator characteristic (ROC) curve was then fit
to these points using maximum likelihood estimation, and
Fig. 1 Schematic illustration of the experimental design. (A) A sche-
matic timeline and examples of the stimuli presented during learning
(left) and memory test (right) experimental stages. (B) Musical nota-
tion of an excerpt that contains the different musical conditions, along
with a depiction of example images that were presented during the
learning session
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
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the area under the curve was measured for each participant
and condition.
Results
Music analysis
Three musical pieces, containing periods of neutral music,
tension, and release from tension, were composed for the
purpose of this study. To validate the musical conditions
and their relation to memory performance, we applied a
music information retrieval (MIR) approach to extract
meaningful features from the composed musical pieces,
with an emphasis on decay times and musical novelty
(Lartillot etal., 2008). Decay times refer to the time-peri-
ods in seconds between successive peaks and troughs of
amplitudes as detected by the MIR software, and novelty
denotes transitions between successive musical states
(see Methods). Figure2 depicts the results of the MIR
analysis for one of the three musical pieces (the results
for all the music pieces are shown in Fig.S1, OSM). The
amplitude waveform of musical piece #1 is shown along
with vertical lines that correspond to the times and musi-
cal condition in which the visual images were displayed.
Musical tension was designed here to contain prolonged
dominant harmonies, and indeed, mean decay lengths (as
detected using the MIR toolbox) were longest surround-
ing images of the predefined tension condition (mean ±
SE = 8.26 ± 2.37 s), followed by tension release (1.89 ±
0.41 s) and neutral music (0.89 ± 0.18 s) (Fig.2D). A one-
way ANOVA revealed a significant difference in the decay
times of the different conditions (F(2,19) = 5.58, P =
0.012), stemming from longer decays in the tension versus
neutral and tension versus tension release conditions (P <
0.05, Bonferroni corrected for multiple comparisons). As
Fig. 2 Music waveform analysis. (A) Spectrogram of the music wave-
form of piece #1, indicating frequency power and volume across time.
(B) Average music amplitude at the time of image presentation from
each condition. (C) The musical waveform along vertical lines, repre-
senting the temporal location of images presented during learning on
the background of tense music (red), neutral music (blue), and release
from tension (green). Normalized frequencies are shown on the
y-axis, and their power is indicated by the color intensity. (D) Decay
lengths (in seconds) surrounding each musical condition, averaged
across the music waveform. Images of the predefined tense music
condition were shown on the background of epochs with longer decay
lengths as compared to neutral and tension release conditions. (E)
Novelty curve throughout the musical piece, indicating variations in
musical transitions (see Methods), along with vertical lines corre-
sponding to the temporal locations of images from the different con-
ditions. (F) Mean novelty during the presentation of images from the
different musical conditions. Similar analyses for the entire musical
stimuli are shown in Fig.S1 (Online Supplementary Material)
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
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shown in Fig.2B, amplitude values did not differ among
the conditions.
In contrast, novelty values (indicating meaningful transi-
tions in musical elements) were similar during times of ten-
sion and neutral music, but were significantly higher during
release from tension (0.31 ± 0.04, 0.28 ± 0.03, and 0.53 ±
0.06, for tension, neutral, and tension release, respectively,
F(2,21) = 3.47, P = 0.05). Figure2(E and F) shows the nov-
elty curve for musical piece 1 and corresponding mean nov-
elty scores for each condition separately. Similar results were
found for the entire musical stimuli (see Fig.S1, OSM).
Physiological validation ofmusical tension
Twenty-two subjects participated in a pilot study that exam-
ined skin conductance responses to the musical pieces.
Three of them were excluded from the analysis since they
did not show any significant SCR measurements.2 Peaks of
SCRs were detected using the Ledalab toolbox, and aver-
aged for each participant separately across periods of prede-
fined tense and neutral music. The mean of SCR peaks was
significantly higher when listening to tense music (1.533 ±
0.13 μS) as compared to listening to neutral music (1.079 ±
0.11 μS, P < 0.05, paired-sample t-test). This indicates that
the suspenseful musical excerpts employed in the experi-
ments were successful in inducing an arousal response (see
Fig.S3, ,OSM). No correlation was found between partici-
pants’ musical background and their reactions to tense ver-
sus neutral music.
Perception oftension
In the preliminary pilot experiment, participants (n = 19)
were asked to rate their felt-tension for selected musical
excerpts on a scale from 1 to 5 after the experiment was
concluded. The results, shown in Table1, indicate that neu-
tral musical excerpts (no delays in harmonic resolutions)
were associated with relatively low tension-ratings (mean ±
SE 1.89 ± 0.2), whereas tension-evoking musical excerpts
(with delays in harmonic resolutions) were associated with
higher felt tension (2.91 ± 0.21). A Wilcoxon nonparametric
test on felt-tension ratings for tense versus neutral excerpts
revealed a significant difference between these conditions
(Z(19) = 3.15, P < 0.005). This is in line with the hypothesis
that delays in harmonic resolutions relate to higher levels of
felt tension. This effect was repeated in the main memory
experiment, where tension-evoking excerpts were rated as
being more tense than neutral ones (mean ± SE 2.73 ± 0.13
for excerpts containing suspended delays) versus neutral
music (2.23 ± 0.11, P < 0.05), using a Wilcoxon matched
pairs test. The musical background of participants was also
assessed, as shown in Table2.
Means and standard errors of subjective tension reports
are detailed for all participants (in the pilot and main experi-
ments), on a scale from 1 to 5: 1 indicating no felt tension
and 5 indicating highly felt tension
The relationship betweenmusical tension
anddeclarative memory
One day after the learning session, participants carried out
the memory recognition test, where they were instructed to
judge whether each of the presented pictures was presented
the day before or not. One participant was excluded from the
analysis due to incomplete data, thus the remaining sample
Table 1 Subjective ratings of felt-tension for the pilot and main
experiments
Pilot Experiment
(n = 19)
Main Experiment
(n = 50)
Tension-evoking
musical excerpts
2.91 ± 0.21 2.73 ± 0.13
Neutral musical
excerpts
1.89 ± 0.2 2.23 ± 0.11
Table 2 Post-experiment responses to the musical background questionnaire
Percentage of participants who play a musical instrument/sing (mean years of playing/singing) 58% (5.03 years ± 0.9)
(n = 29/50)
Percentage of participants with formal music training (+average duration of formal musical training) 50% (5.03 ± 0.8)(n = 25/50)
Estimated average time spent listening to music (hours per week) 7.34 ± 0.9
Estimated average time spent on musical activity (hours per week) 0.91 ± 0.26
Overall musical interest (1–no interest, 5–high interest) 4 ± 0.12
Overall musical ability (1–no ability, 5–high ability) 2.78 ± 0.16
Engagement with music (1–no engagement, 4–high engagement) 2.68 ± 0.17
2 The absence of a significant SCR for the excluded subjects may
have been due to either a technical error or low electro-dermal activ-
ity from the participants themselves.
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
1 3
for analysis consisted of 49 participants. Recognition rates
varied among the four different conditions, yielding the fol-
lowing hits percentages: 75.2% ± 2.35 for images presented
during musical tension, 72.34% ± 2.58 for neutral, 67.44%
± 2.45 for tension resolution, and 64.38% ± 3.01 for silence.
Mean false alarm rate was 21% ± 2.13. Mean sensitivity
measures of d-prime (d’) for the tension, neutral, release,
and silence conditions, respectively, were 1.72 ± 0.13,
1.59 ± 0.12, 1.43 ± 0.11, and 1.34 ± 0.13 (see Fig.3A). A
repeated-measures ANOVA test was carried out on the sen-
sitivity measure (d’) across the musical conditions, yielding
a significant memory effect for music conditions on memory
performance (F(3,144) = 9.88, P < 0.00001). Bonferroni-
corrected post hoc comparisons showed that images pre-
sented during the tension condition were better recognized
than those presented during both the tension-release con-
dition (P < 0.005) and silence (P < 0.001). Furthermore,
mean hits for the neutral music condition were higher than
those of the silent conditions (P < 0.005). Using the ROC-
toolbox (Koen etal., 2017), we computed ROC curves for
each participant and each condition (see Fig.S4, OSM), and
extracted the AUC as an index of memory performance for
different confidence criteria. A repeated-measures ANOVA
of AUC across musical conditions yielded a significant
effect (F(3,144) = 11.53, P < 0.0001, see Fig.3B). As for
d-prime, Bonferroni-corrected post hoc comparisons showed
that AUC for tension music significantly differed from ten-
sion release (P < 0.001) and silence (P < 0.001), and neutral
differed from silence (P < 0.005). Note that the memory
indices for tension and neutral music were not significantly
different than one another.
Reaction times and confidence ratings were compared
between trials on which the subjects correctly identified a
previously presented picture (hits) and those on which they
did not remember the pictures (misses). A paired-samples
t-test carried out on hits versus misses for all conditions
showed that RTs were faster (P < 0.001) for hit responses (M
= 1.36 ± 0.03 s) than for misses (M = 1.54 ± 0.04 s). Fur-
thermore, a paired-samples t-test performed on confidence
ratings showed that mean confidence ratings for hits (7.89 ±
0.07) were significantly higher than mean confidence ratings
for misses (6.11 ± 0.14, P < 0.001).
In order to examine subject-by-subject relationships
between tension perception and memory, we examined
memory performance for images presented during tension
and tension-resolution periods (as compared to baseline
memory for neutral music background) against tension per-
ception indices. Figure3C depicts a negative correlation
between tension perception and the tension memory index,
indicating that the higher the tension ratings were to tense-
evoking excerpts, the lower was their memory for images
presented during tense-evoking compared to neutral music
(Spearman’s rho = -0.39, P < 0.01 for d-prime, and rho =
Fig. 3 Perceived tension vs. memory performance (d’) and area under the
curve (AUC) measurements. (A) Mean memory performance (d-prime)
for images presented in each musical condition. (B) Mean area under the
receiver operating characteristics curve (AUC) for each musical condition.
(C) Differential d’ for tense vs. neutral conditions (y-axis) plotted against
differential perception reports for tense vs. neutral excerpts (the neutral
condition was treated as a baseline for memory performance compari-
sons). (D) Differential AUC for tense vs. neutral conditions (y-axis) plot-
ted against differential perception reports for tense vs. neutral excerpts.
(E) Differential d-prime for tense release vs. neutral conditions plotted
against perception of tension. (F) Differential AUC for tense release vs.
neutral conditions plotted against perception of tension. (G) Differential
d-prime for musical tension vs. silence conditions plotted against percep-
tion of tension. (H). Differential AUC for musical tension vs. silence con-
ditions plotted against perception of tension. ** P < 0.005, *** P < 0.001
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
1 3
-0.49, P < 0.0005 for AUC, Figs.3C and D). However, there
were no significant correlations between memory indices of
d-prime and AUC for the tension release condition versus
tension perception (Figs.3E and F, respectively), as well as
for tension versus silence (Figs.3G and H, respectively).
This implies that the tradeoff effect between tension percep-
tion and memory performance was not a general trait, as it
only took place in relation to the tension music condition.
We next examined the possibility that musical back-
ground and engagement may relate to tension perception
and memory (see Table2 for musical background data).
Formal musical training was not correlated with tension
perception (independent-samples t-test: t(47) = 0.99, P =
0.32). Similarly, musical activity (as assessed by the music
background questionnaire) did not correlate with tension-
perception, and memory performance (d-prime and AUC)
did not differ between individuals with and without musi-
cal training (t(47) = 0.97, and t(47) = 1.61, respectively, NS).
Additionally, d-prime and AUC measures for the musical
tension condition were not correlated with subjective reports
of musical interest, ability, hours of listening to music, or
subjective engagement with music (as tested by Spearman’s
rho tests). These results are presented in TableS1 (OSM).
In order to assess for possible influences of musical training
on the demonstrated relationship between perceived tension
and memory performance, we carried out two regression
analyses, with either tension-related d’ or AUC as dependent
variables, and differential tension perception and musical
background (categorical yes/no) as independent variables.
As expected, for both d’ and AUC, the slopes of the per-
ceived tension variable were significant (beta values for
perceived tension were significant at P < 0.05 for d’ and P
< 0.01 for AUC). In contrast, the slopes of the musical back-
ground did not reach significance (P = 0.34 and P = 0.118,
respectively). Thus, musical background did not contribute
to the explanation of the variability in memory performance.
Discussion
The aim of the current study was to investigate the effect
of musical tension and its perception on the formation of
declarative memory. We found that, overall, memory per-
formance for images presented during musical tension was
superior compared to tension release epochs and silence.
Moreover, perception of memory tension was negatively cor-
related with memory performance, such that the higher the
perception of tension, the lower the memory performance
(as indexed by d’ and AUC measures) for images presented
during musical tension, as compared to the baseline of neu-
tral music. We applied music information retrieval (MIR)
analysis to validate the predefined tension condition, and
confirmed that this condition differed from tension release
and neutral periods only in decay times (indicative of the
prolongation of dominant V chords), and not in amplitude
(volume) or musical novelty. We also confirmed that musi-
cal tension yielded enhanced skin-conductance responses
as compared to neutral music. Overall, tension perception
seems to act as a mediator between musical tension and its
interference with memory performance. Participants who do
not detect musical tension are more successful in forming
memories for images while listening to tense music, com-
pared to listening to neutral music or silence. These findings
are discussed in light of the cognitive capacity model and the
arousal-mood hypothesis, as they relate to musical percep-
tion and cognition.
Previous studies have found that cognitive performance
may be enhanced (Hallam etal., 2002), impaired (Moreno
& Mayer, 2000; Ransdell & Gilroy, 2001; Thompson etal.,
2011; Woo & Kanachi, 2005), or remain unaffected by back-
ground music (Jäncke & Sandmann, 2010; see Lehmann &
Seufert, 2017, for a review on this matter). The results of
the current study show that memory performance for visual
stimuli is enhanced when the stimuli are encoded in the
presence of music, whether the music expresses tension or
neutral features, in comparison to silence. All participants
were unfamiliar with the music they heard during learning, a
feature that enabled us to control for any familiarity effects,
which were previously shown to interfere with participants’
performance (Büdenbender & Kreutz, 2016; Chew etal.,
2016; Parente, 1976). It should be noted that only a handful
of previous studies, which assessed the effects of background
music on learning, made use of music that was specifically
composed for the experimental intervention (de la Mora
Velasco & Hirumi, 2020a). To the best of our knowledge,
this is the first study that uses original background music
to investigate its effects on declarative memory for images.
Pertaining to musical training, participants varied in their
musical background, but none of them were professional
musicians. This fact might have contributed to the general
positive effect that the background music exerted, as previ-
ous studies have pointed to a negative impact of background
music on musicians in comparison to non-musicians, such
that professional musicians seem to consume more cognitive
resources in analyzing musical properties, as they are more
sensitive to tonal structures (Morrison etal., 2003; Patston
& Tippett, 2011).
It is noteworthy that the tension condition (and to some
extent tension resolution as well) is characterized by mini-
mal auditory input, yet the context of this minimal input
still influences cognitive performance. In the tension condi-
tion, one chord was prolonged (the dominant fifth), such
that in effect, the listener heard a sustained prolongation of
the previous chord until tension was released. According
to the classical music paradigm, harmonic progressions are
interpreted according to their local context, within which
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
1 3
the tonal function of particular chords can be determined as
creating tension (Bigand & Parncutt, 1999). On the percep-
tual level, the different contexts of these conditions lead to
different experiences. Based on the law of good continua-
tion (Gestalt Psychology), as it applies to musical stimuli,
expectations that arise from delays in musical phrases will
yield an affective response, unless the process is rational-
ized on a conscious level (Meyer, 1956, p.88). Therefore,
in contrast to the silence condition, the tension condition
is accompanied by an expectation, which is resolved only
upon the release from tension. In our study, the musical ten-
sion condition, which was characterized by minimal musi-
cal stimuli, yielded overall superior memory formation in
comparison to silence, stressing the importance of musical
context on cognitive performance.
The observation that the presence of music was associ-
ated with increased visual memory as compared to silence
is in line with the arousal-mood hypothesis (Husain etal.,
2002). According to this hypothesis, listening to music
can affect both physiological arousal and emotional feel-
ings, which may in turn influence cognitive performance
in diverse ways (Thompson etal., 2001). In a related study,
Bezdek etal. (2017) dissociated between suspense related to
the content of selected movie segments and suspense related
to background music. They found that the former, but not
the latter, increased accuracy for memory recall of movie
details. Here we show that musical stimuli, both with and
without delays in tension-release, benefit memory formation,
as compared to silence. On top of this relationship, we dem-
onstrate a weakening in memory formation for participants
who perceive tension music as such, compared to the neutral
music condition, and a memory facilitation effect when ten-
sion is present in the music but not necessarily perceived
as such. This negative correlation between tension percep-
tion and memory formation implies that beyond the overall
arousing effect that music exerts on listeners’ performance,
the perception of specific musical features mediates memory
performance. According to the seductive detail effect (Rey,
2012), interesting but otherwise irrelevant information to a
given task, such as background music, can grab attention
resources and consequently impede learning (Lehmann &
Seufert, 2017). This is also in line with the cognitive capac-
ity model, as learners have to invest more cognitive resources
to process background music on top of the primary cogni-
tive task (Deutsch, 2013). Mirroring this effect, individuals
who do not perceive tension show a facilitating influence of
tension on encoding. This raises the possibility that tension
conveyed by music elicits an automatic emotional response,
thus aiding encoding.
The present study accounts for the complex relationships
among musical features, physiological responses to music, and
perception of musical elements, to provide insights as to the
relation of musical tension and memory performance. Musical
tension in the current experiment was elicited by prolonging
delays in harmonic resolutions (postponing the root chord
that is expected to succeed the dominant chord). Future stud-
ies may consider using other musical characteristics known
to induce tension, such as changes in tempo, dissonance, and
rhythm. The effect that musical expertise may have on cogni-
tive performance while listening to music remains unresolved.
In the current study, musical training or activity (as assessed
by the music background questionnaire) did not correlate with
tension-perception. Similar findings were previously reported,
providing evidence that musicians and non-musicians do not
differ in their ratings of musical tension for single chords
(Lahdelma & Eerola, 2020), sequences of chords (Bigand
& Parncutt, 1999), or prolonged musical pieces (Fredrick-
son, 2000). Since none of our participants were professional
musicians, and given the above, it is not surprising that the
degree of musicality or training did not correlate with tension
perception. Although little is known regarding the interac-
tion between musical expertise and the effects of music on
cognition (de la Mora Velasco & Hirumi, 2020b), our results
are in line with previous research showing that participants
with musical background do not necessarily perform better in
memory tasks related to visual stimuli (Talamini etal., 2017).
Finally, since we wished for the tension perception
manipulation to be implicit, we measured participants’ felt-
tension only after the encoding and memory stages were
completed. Thus, we report correlations between memory
performance based on information encoded on day 1, and
tension perception from the rating task on day 2. Although
we also validated the musical tension manipulation in a sep-
arate pilot by measuring SCR during the encoding stage,
future research could use continuous measures of objective
and subjective arousal during the main experiment, enabling
direct correlations between arousal, tension, and memory.
Additionally, future studies are necessary for examining
whether this interfering effect of music on memory forma-
tion can be found in musical features other than tension. For
instance, if participants were asked to rate changes in tempo
or dissonance, would subjective ratings be negatively cor-
related with memory performance.
In summary, we provide evidence for a trade-off between
perception of musical tension and declarative memory,
paving the way to a better understanding of the interplay
between musical features, emotion, and memory.
Supplementary Information The online version contains supplemen-
tary material available at https:// doi. org/ 10. 3758/ s13423- 022- 02095-z.
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Article
Full-text available
The contrast between consonance and dissonance is vital in making music emotionally meaningful. Consonance typically denotes perceived agreeableness and stability, while dissonance disagreeableness and a need of resolution. This study addresses the perception of consonance/dissonance in single intervals and chords with two empirical experiments conducted online. Experiment 1 explored the perception of a representative sample of intervals and chords to investigate the overlap between the seven most used concepts (Consonance, Smoothness, Purity, Harmoniousness, Tension, Pleasantness, Preference) denoting consonance/dissonance in all the available (60) empirical studies published since 1883. The results show that the concepts exhibit high correlations, albeit these are somewhat lower for non-musicians compared to musicians. In Experiment 2 the stimuli’s cultural familiarity was divided into three levels, and the correlations between the key concepts of Consonance, Tension, Harmoniousness, Pleasantness, and Preference were further examined. Cultural familiarity affected the correlations drastically across both musicians and non-musicians, but in different ways. Tension maintained relatively high correlations with Consonance across musical expertise and cultural familiarity levels, making it a useful concept for studies addressing both musicians and non-musicians. On the basis of the results a control for cultural familiarity and musical expertise is recommended for all studies investigating consonance/dissonance perception.
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This study investigates how background music influences learning with respect to three different theoretical approaches. Both the Mozart effect as well as the arousal-mood-hypothesis indicate that background music can potentially benefit learning outcomes. While the Mozart effect assumes a direct influence of background music on cognitive abilities, the arousal-mood-hypothesis assumes a mediation effect over arousal and mood. However, the seductive detail effect indicates that seductive details such as background music worsen learning. Moreover, as working memory capacity has a crucial influence on learning with seductive details, we also included the learner’s working memory capacity as a factor in our study. We tested 81 college students using a between-subject design with half of the sample listening to two pop songs while learning a visual text and the other half learning in silence. We included working memory capacity in the design as a continuous organism variable. Arousal and mood scores before and after learning were collected as potential mediating variables. To measure learning outcomes we tested recall and comprehension. We did not find a mediation effect between background music and arousal or mood on learning outcomes. In addition, for recall performance there were no main effects of background music or working memory capacity, nor an interaction effect of these factors. However, when considering comprehension we did find an interaction between background music and working memory capacity: the higher the learners’ working memory capacity, the better they learned with background music. This is in line with the seductive detail assumption.
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